Tag Archives: Yasunari Kawabata

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward G. Seidensticker)

The Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata is perhaps best known for Snow Country, the story of a doomed love affair between a wealthy city-based man and an innocent young geisha who lives in a remote area by the mountains. It is a work of great poetic beauty and subtlety – and yet there is something strange and elusive about this novella, a quality that makes it hard to pin down. The same could be said of The Sound of the Mountain, written in the early fifties and translated into English in 1970. Once again, I find myself being drawn into a world that feels so different from my own, delicately conveyed like the brushstrokes of a watercolour painting.

The novel focuses on Ogata Shingo, a sixty-two-year old man who lives with his wife, Yasuko, in the city of Kamakura, just south of Tokyo. After thirty years, any feelings of love or passion have long since disappeared from the couple’s marriage, leaving Shingo preoccupied with a number of things – mostly concerns about his family, the inexorable march of time and his failing memory. There is a sense that life is gradually slipping away from Shingo; the world around him is changing and not necessarily for the better. In this scene, he has just been struggling to do up his tie.

Why should he suddenly this morning have forgotten a process he had repeated every morning through the forty years of his office career? His hands should have moved automatically. He should have been able to tie his tie without even thinking.

It seemed to Shingo that he faced a collapse, a loss of self. (p. 195)

Shingo is at an age where several of his contemporaries are succumbing to various illnesses, some of which end in death –  a strong sense of loss pervades throughout the novel. Moreover, there are times, especially at night, when Shingo is visited by the sound of the mountain, a distant rumble that seems to suggest that his own passing might not be too far away.

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in the ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain. (p. 4)

Also living with Shingo and Yasuko are their wayward, unsympathetic son, Shuichi and his long-suffering wife, Kikuko, a beautiful, sensitive young woman who represents the main source of brightness in Shingo’s life. In short, she reminds Shingo of Yasuko’s sister, the long-lost love of his youth who died before he decided to get married.

Kikuko was for him a window looking out of a gloomy house. His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. (p. 25)

Even though he has only been married to Kikuko few years, Shuichi already has a mistress, Kinu, whom he visits after work, frequently leaving Shingo to travel home alone from the Tokyo office where the two men are based. Like Shingo himself, Kikuko also feels rather lonely and isolated in her life. In the absence her husband, she enjoys Shingo’s company, helping him to unwind on his return from the city. That said, there is nothing overtly sexual about Shingo’s relationship with Kikuko; for the most part, it seems more a case of mutual respect coupled with a deep sense of empathy. In other words, their attraction is predominantly spiritual rather than physical. Nevertheless, there are occasions when Shingo’s fondness for his daughter-in-law starts to raise questions in his mind.

There was an undercurrent running through his life the abnormality that made Shingo, drawn to Yasuko’s sister, marry Yasuko, a year his senior, upon the sister’s death; was it exacerbated by Kikuko? (p. 78)

Yasuko, for her part, is more forthright than Shingo, and she urges her husband to tackle Shuichi head-on over his affair and subsequent neglect of Kikuko. Furthermore, Yasuko believes her husband to be soft, particularly in his favouritism for Shuichi over their other child, Fusako. Shingo, however, has a tendency to procrastinate over familial relationships, preferring instead to avoid any unnecessary conflict. That’s not to say that he doesn’t feel guilty about his lack of intervention here – in fact, he feels it very deeply – but in spite of this, he allows the situation to fester.

This same sense of procrastination also characterises Shingo’s relationship with his rather disagreeable daughter, Fusako, who has recently come back to the Ogata family home following the breakdown of her own marriage. Moreover, Fusako has two young children in tow: a petulant toddler who clearly takes after her mother, and a more placid baby who spends most of her time asleep. Once again, guilt-ridden passivity is the order of the day as Shingo opts to let matters run their natural course.

He knew that as her father he should step forward to give Fusako advice; but she was thirty and married, and matters are not simple for fathers in such cases. It would not be easy to accommodate a woman with two children. A decision was postponed from day to day, as if the principals were all waiting for nature to take its course. (p. 25)

Kawabata paints a very nuanced portrait of Shingo here, a man troubled by the tensions and difficulties in the relationships that surround him, especially those in the modern world of post-war Japan. One feels great sympathy for this individual in spite of the inherent flaws and shortcomings in his character – after all, we are all human with our own particular weaknesses and failings. Central to the novel is the question of how much responsibility a parent should take for the happiness of his or her children, particularly where their marriages are concerned. As the consequences of complications in Shuichi’s and Fusako’s respective marriages unfold, Shingo finds himself haunted by a sense of guilt. While he tries to do the right thing, especially for Kikuko and Shuichi, a number of unanswered questions continue to prey on his mind.

How many times would Kikuko, now in her early twenties, have to forgive Shuichi before she had lived with him to the ages of Shingo and Yasuko? Would there be no limit to her forgiving?

A marriage was like a dangerous marsh, sucking in endlessly the misdeeds of the partners. Kinu’s love for Shuichi. Shingo’s love for Kikuko – would they disappear without trace in the swamp that was Shuichi’s and Kikuko’s marriage? (p. 96)

All in all, this is a beautiful, delicate novel laced with a sense of longing for the past, a time when human relations and emotions seemed more straightforward, certainly as far as Shingo is concerned. In several respects, I was reminded of The Gate by Natsume Söseki, a story of urban angst in early 20th-century Japan which I wrote about last year.  At first sight, The Sound of the Mountain might seem a relatively uneventful story of an ordinary Japanese family trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, there is a lot going on here; we just have to tune in to the author’s rhythm to see it.

The book also contains some lovely writing on the natural world. A majestic display of sunflowers in neighbouring gardens; a flock of buntings taking flight; the sight of fresh buds on a Gingko tree – all of these things represent moments of beauty and simplicity in Shingo’s life.

For more reviews of Japanese literature, see Dolce Bellezza’s event which is running to the end of the year.

The Sound of the Mountain is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata (review)

A few years ago I read Kawabata’s Snow Country, a delicate and restrained story of a relationship between a Japanese man and a geisha living in the snowy mountains. It’s a beautiful novella, and with Tony’s January in Japan event well underway, the time was right for me to try another by this author.

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First published in 1975, Beauty and Sadness opens with a journey: a trip by train and a journey into the past. Oki, an author in his mid-fifties, is travelling by train from to Kyoto to hear the New Year’s Eve bells. For some time he has been tempted by the prospect of being in Kyoto to hear the ‘living sound’ of the old temple bells, an event he usually listens to on the radio. But Oki has another reason for journeying to Kyoto: he longs to reconnect with his former lover, Otoko, a woman he has not seen for more than twenty years, a woman he still loves.

What were memories? What was the past that he remembered so clearly? When Otoko moved to Kyoto with her mother, Oki was sure they had parted. Yet had they, really? He could not escape the pain of having spoiled her life, possibly of having robbed her of every chance for happiness. But what had she thought of him as she spent all those lonely years? The Otoko of his memories was the most passionate woman he had ever known. And did not the vividness even now of those memories mean that she was not separated from him? (pg. 11)

At the age of fifteen Otoko fell in love with Oki, who was married with a young son at the time of the affair. Otoko fell pregnant, but her baby was born prematurely only to die shortly after the birth. As a result, Otoko experienced a breakdown attempting to take her own life in the process. Once the girl had recovered, her mother moved the family to Kyoto in an effort to put some distance between the two former lovers. These events were very painful for Otoko and to this day she remains haunted by the loss of Oki and their baby.

Oki, on the other hand, turned their story into a novel, A Girl of Sixteen, causing tension and pain to his own family as a result. The novel, which featured an idealised vision of Otoko, remains Oki’s most successful work. Praised by critics and loved by readers, the book could be considered a double-edged sword. While the novel’s proceeds helped fund an education for Oki’s children, the story itself has left its mark on his wife.

Returning to the present, Otoko (now aged thirty-nine) is a successful artist living in Kyoto with her young protégé, fellow artist and lover, Keiko. During Oki’s visit to Kyoto, he meets with Otoko and Keiko. When we are first introduced to Keiko, there are hints of darkness in her personality: Oki considers her to be ‘disturbingly beautiful’, a description which reappears during the story. Alongside this, Otoko’s portrayal of Keiko’s artistic style reinforces an unsettling sense of imbalance:

‘She does abstract paintings in a style all her own. They’re so passionate they often seem a little mad. But I’m quite taken with them; I envy her. You can see her tremble as she paints.’ (pg. 13)

Despite her relationship with Keiko, Otoko still harbours deep feelings for Oki. Aware of Otoko’s history with Oki, Keiko sets out to gain revenge on Oki and his family for the pain and hurt he has caused Otoko. Consequently, Keiko attempts to insert herself between the two former lovers, and when Otoko realises what is happening this only serves to rekindle her old love for Oki:

Their love was like a dreamlike flower that not even Keiko could stain. (pg. 85)

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Keiko’s destructive actions will have ramifications for all. She sets out to seduce Oki; his son, Taichiro, is drawn into her web. Even Otoko may succumb.

The Keiko who seemed to be under her control had turned into some strange creature attacking her. Keiko had said she would take revenge on Oki for her sake, but to Otoko it seemed Keiko was taking revenge on her. (pg. 76)

Beauty and Sadness is another subtle and poignant novella from Kawabata. On the surface, the author appears to use the lightest of brushstrokes in his writing, but the emotions in this story run deep. The intense pain of loss is echoed by the melancholy sound of the temple bells. Rarely has a book’s title captured the tone of its story so perfectly.

The writing is exquisite. One of the things I love about this novella is the way Kawabata draws on Otoko’s and Keiko’s art as means of illustrating their feelings. At one point in the story, Otoko expresses a desire to paint a tea plantation – this harks back to her memories of the period following her separation from Oki, a time when she travelled by rail between Tokyo and Kyoto. As she looked at tea fields from the train window, the sadness of parting from Oki suddenly weighed heavily on her:

She could not say why these rather inconspicuous green slopes had so touched her heart, when along the railway line there were mountains, lakes, the sea –at time even clouds dyed in sentimental colours. But perhaps their melancholy green, and the melancholy evening shadows of the ridges across them, had brought on the pain. (pg. 36)

As I touched on earlier, Keiko’s art also captures a sense of her personality. Here’s a description of Plum Tree, one of two paintings she leaves with Oki’s family as an ominous gift for Otoko’s former lover. It features a single plum blossom with both red and white petals, each of the red petals painted in ‘an odd combination of dark and light shades of red’:

The shape of this large plum blossom was not especially distorted, but it gave no impression of being a static decorative design. A strange apparition seemed to be swaying back and forth. It looked as if it were really swaying. Perhaps that was because of the background, which at first Oki had taken for thick, overlapping sheets of ice and then on closer inspection had seen as a range of snowy mountains. […] The background might be an image of Keiko’s own feeling. Even if you took it as cascading snowy mountains it was not a cold snow-white. The cold of the snow and its warm color made a kind of music. The snow was not a uniform white, many colors seemed to be harmonised in it. It had the same tonality as the variations of red and white in the blossom’s petals. Whether you thought of the picture as cold or warm, the plum blossom throbbed with the youthful emotions of the painter. (pg. 29)

That’s a long quote, but I hope it gives a flavour of Kawabata’s style and the way he uses imagery and colour within the story. By so doing, he leaves some scope for the reader to draw their own interpretation from the picture.

This powerful story touches on the dark side of desire, repressed passions and the complex nature of our relationship with love. As the narrative builds, there is a sense of foreboding; the ending is devastating and poignant leaving the reader to imagine the reverberations to come. Like Snow Country, this is a nuanced novella, one I’d like to reread.

I’ll finish with a final passage I liked; Kawabata captures the landscape and light so beautifully and once again his prose has the feel of a painting. As the colours mingle, the images emerge as if painted in a watercolour:

The glow spread high in the western sky. The richness of the purple made him wonder if there might be a thin bank of clouds. A purple sunset was most unusual. There were subtle graduations of color from dark to light, as if blended by trailing a wide brush across wet rice paper. The softness of the purple implied the coming of spring. At one place the haze was pink. That seems to be where the sun was setting. (pg. 16)

Beauty and Sadness (tr. by Howard S. Hibbert) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20 in my #TBR20.